Toronto’s gridlock is already back — and your commute may get worse than ever after COVID-19

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Eighteen months ago, COVID-19 emptied its streets and public transportation in Toronto. People are once again on the move as there are signs of a return to life in the city. Just the way they walk has changed. In this two-part series, Toronto Star transportation reporter Ben Spur examines your post-pandemic future. In part one, he explores the problems facing TTC, and in part two today, he looks at the troubled return of gridlock.

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More pollution, billions of dollars in lost productivity, poor health and increased stress. All those problems may await Toronto residents after the pandemic, if the city doesn’t get to deal with its resurgent traffic woes.

Eighteen months after COVID-19 plunged Toronto into peril and emptied its roads, drivers have returned to roadways this fall in numbers. The city’s famous gridlock is back.

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And while the roads are not yet as congested as before the pandemic, there are troubling signs that travel patterns over the past year and a half have posed a serious threat to the city’s long-term stability.

For one, the roadways are busy again, despite the city’s office occupancy staying historically low and commuters staying home. Secondly, and perhaps more worryingly, car use is returning at much faster rates than transit ridership.

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Experts warn that if those trends continue as Toronto opens up and more people return to physical workplaces, overcrowding could be worse than before COVID-19, which has a negative impact on the environment, economy and residents’ lives. There will be a significant negative impact on quality.

“I think it’s definitely a threat right now, of course, as things probably come back with more traffic and more congestion,” said Jesse Coleman, manager of transportation data and analytics for the City of Toronto. “This is something the city is taking seriously and actively managing.”


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When COVID-19 knocked on last spring, the crowds practically disappeared overnight. In the two months following the state's declaration of state of emergency in March 2020, Toronto's travel time index—a statistic that the Department of Transportation uses to compare average citywide driving times to "free-flow" conditions—was higher than traditional congestion. fell to about 1.0 during the period, meaning there were almost no traffic delays. (Before the pandemic, the baseline index for the evening rush hour was 1.76, meaning it took 76 percent longer to drive than if there was no traffic.) Traffic volume also fell to 44 percent of normal, which Used to be before. Morning rush.

Traffic has fluctuated since then as pandemic restrictions were strengthened or eased. But with students returning to school last month, both traffic volume and congestion reached their highest level since COVID-19 began.

By the week of September 13, Toronto's daily traffic volume had returned to 85 percent of normal, according to city data. The morning crowd, which was almost non-existent in the earlier epidemic, became busy in the evening, that too returned. Morning traffic delays increased by 75 percent in the first full week of in-person school compared to the end of the summer.

The return of gridlock is taking a toll on drivers like Ivan Tumillo, whose job as a director at an energy company requires frequent drives to Bluewater, Ont., about 200 kilometers west of his home in Toronto. The 30-year-old also uses his car to drive to errands and visit friends as he becomes wary of riding the TTC during the pandemic.

Listen to Ben Spur discuss the matter on the podcast:

In the early stages of the crisis, traffic was so light that trips that would normally take it reduced to an hour and 20 minutes. "It was honestly a dream," Tumillo said.

But now he's back to spending two hours a day behind the wheel. The pandemic has given him a fresh perspective on many things, but his frustration at being stuck in traffic is not one of them. "We still have things to do. We still don't really want to be in our car," he said. "It doesn't feel so good."

A city spokesman said the municipality is constantly updating its plans to clear overcrowding as part of its recovery strategy. The city has already taken steps to give people driving options such as expanding the cycling network and implementing priority bus routes. It is also deploying traffic agents to manage busy intersections, activating smart signals that will adjust to real-time traffic conditions, and monitoring congested hot spots using traffic cameras.

Eric Miller, director of the University of Toronto's Transportation Research Institute, speculates that there are two reasons why many people are still working from home, yet traffic is coming back so strongly.

One is that although fewer workers are arriving, people are wary of riding public transport and are instead using their cars for the trips they do. Latest figures from TTC show that transit ridership has only returned to around 45 per cent of normal.

Additionally, while many people are working from home, they are still traveling for shopping, running errands and other purposes.

"(Working from home) peak-period commuting travelling, but not necessarily trip-making for other reasons," Miller said. Given people's reluctance to take public transport "these non-work trips have always been more car-oriented than work trips, and will be even more so at this time".

Data from location technology firm TomTom confirms that non-work travel is contributing to the resurgence of driving. As of the week of September 20, congestion in the city was about 10 percent below normal when measured on a weekly basis, but since mid-July there have been several occasions when Toronto has exceeded pre-pandemic norms at least one Went. weekend day.

TomTom spokeswoman Carol Hansen said the figures showed people who worked remotely became more inclined to sit in their cars over the weekend. "Whereas before if you were in the office all week, a little bit of being at home was like a relief," she said.

TomTom data, which is collected from the "ecosystem" of smartphones, in-vehicle navigation systems and other devices, indicates that driving is increasing across Canada, although patterns vary from city to city. But in a glimpse of what Toronto's future could hold, the weekly standoff in Vancouver is starting to exceed pre-pandemic levels. The week of September 13, congestion in the West Coast city was eight percent higher than in standard conditions in 2019.

Carolyn Kim, Ontario regional director of the Pembina Institute, a clean energy think tank, warned that if overcrowding in Canadian cities worsens it would seriously undermine the country's efforts to meet climate goals.

Pembina has reported that Canada's greenhouse gas emissions fell by seven percent in 2020 as a result of the pandemic, with much of the decline due to a reduction in surface transport.

“In the long term,[the return of traffic]actually jeopardizes our ability to have a safe climate, and to ensure that we are limiting warming to 1.5 °C,” she said, targeting Target Canada. and referring to others adopted under the Paris Agreement.

More deadlock will also put a significant strain on the economy. Before the pandemic, the Toronto Region Board of Trade predicted it would cost the region $15 billion in lost productivity by 2031 if it was not addressed. The problem will be impossible to deal with if transit access remains low and traffic affects the road network.

"(There's) a huge amount of economic impact," said Jonathan English, director of policy at the Board of Business, who explained that chronic gridlock limits employment opportunities for residents and makes it difficult for employers to recruit top talent. Is.

There are costs for individuals as well. A 2007 Toronto Public Health study found that traffic pollution contributed to 440 premature deaths and 1,700 hospitalizations per year...

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